The Second-Most Important Character on TV’s Best Comedy

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 2 2012 3:48 PM

Character Studies: Pamela from Louie

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Pamela Adlon at the 'Louie' premiere last June.

Photo by Katy Winn/Getty Images

Over the past year Bridesmaids has gotten a lot of credit for supposedly proving that women “can be funny” and “are the equal of men in vulgarity.” If you’re a fan of stand-up—or, perhaps, a reasonably astute observer of human behavior—you may have asked yourself (rhetorically, because it’s fun to ask yourself rhetorical questions), “These things needed proof?” From Phyllis Diller to Joan Rivers to Roseanne Barr to Laura Kightlinger to Sarah Silverman and beyond, stand-up comediennes have demonstrated these things many times over.

And so have the two TV shows created by America’s current top comic—a man, as it happens—Louis C.K. Kightlinger herself had a recurring role on his underrated Lucky Louie, but the real exemplar of female frankness both on that show and on his current FX comedy Louie is not a comic by trade, but an award-winning voice-actor: Pamela Adlon.

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Even if you haven’t seen Adlon before, there’s a good chance you’ve heard her voice—or some variation of it. She won an Emmy back in 2002 for providing the pipes of Bobby Hill, the teenage Texan on Mike Judge’s King of the Hill. She won for a hilarious episode in which Bobby learns self-defense in a class otherwise populated by women—also known as the “That’s my purse!” episode:

Adlon first met C.K. when she was cast on HBO’s Lucky Louie, and C.K. has said that working with her was a revelation to him. For the first time, he felt like he was part of a comedy team. Adlon told Terry Gross it was “like doing community theater.” On the show, she plays Louie’s wife, and she gives as good as—no, much better than—she gets.

After Lucky Louie was canceled, C.K. created a series that is as close to a one-man show as it is probably possible for scripted television to get: C.K. writes, directs, produces, edits, and stars in Louie. Yet he still doesn’t do it alone: In addition to all the behind-the-camera folks (some of whom he’s been working with since his black-and-white short-film days), he also brought Adlon along, and cast her in the show’s second-most important role. As Pamela, the kindred spirit who has no interest in Louie beyond friendship, Adlon provides a kind of emotional port without which the lonely Louie might seem too desperately out at sea. (Pamela is a single mom, as Louie is a single dad; both are single parents in real life, too.)

And she plays a role behind the camera as well: For the second season, she assumed a role as executive producer. The long Q&A with C.K. that Slate pop critic Jonah Weiner posted on his website (after profiling C.K. for Rolling Stone) reveals some of the back-and-forth between Adlon and C.K. about the latter’s comedy, suggesting just how involved she is in helping craft the show’s voice.

She appeared in fewer episodes of the show in the second season, in part because her role on Showtime’s Californication left her with less time. Still, she remained crucial to the series. The season ended, memorably, with Louie mishearing Pamela at the airport, thinking that maybe his love would finally be requited—a sad, funny note on which to end. Even better, I think, albeit less funny, was a scene earlier in the season, when Louie insisted on telling Pamela exactly how he felt—a scene that works in part because, as a viewer, I can totally understand why he would feel the way he does.

Previous Character Studies:

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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